Campaign debts: burden for politicians, problem for creditors

POLITICAL campaigns are a losing proposition not only for many candidates but for some of their creditors as well. Hardly an election goes by without a flock of office seekers, including some successful ones, leaving unpaid debts. And that sorry situation certainly is not alien to Massachusetts.

Many candidates, to their credit, see to it that their financial obligations for the previous campaign are met, if not before the day of balloting then afterward.

But more than a few have simply walked away from their bills.

Yet such bad debts seldom seem to deter candidates from running again, and, in the process, incurring new obligations.

That candidates at all levels of government are carrying sometimes sizable debts from earlier campaigns was spotlighted anew last month when federal marshals moved in and seized the proceeds from a 1988 Gary Hart for President fund-raiser in California, to satisfy a creditor from his 1984 White House bid. That raised the question whether money contributed for a current campaign can be, or should be, diverted to pay bills from a previous candidacy.

Although perhaps legal, not paying past campaign debts first would seem to be at least morally wrong. It is certainly an insult to those who have not been paid for printing, office rent, and various services in the candidate's previous campaigns.

Just because it is perhaps more difficult to raise money for a campaign once it is over does not justify failure to pay off every debt to the last penny. And to do less smacks at irresponsibility.

It might be in the best interests of the public to have a statute requiring potential office seekers at all levels to take a public oath that, to the best of their knowledge, any debts they incurred in the past are paid off.

Those with outstanding liabilities would then have to own up to it before qualifying for a place on the ballot.

In this way voters could be more fully informed about the background of somebody seeking their support. It should be clear how much is owed and for what.

Obviously a law-abiding, qualified citizen has the constitutional right to run for public office. At the same time, however, it would seem to be no candidate's right to get away with sweeping unpaid campaign bills under the rug.

If political hopefuls and their supporters knew there would be a day of reckoning, they might be more restrained in what they or their campaign committees spend.

It makes little sense for anyone, as ambitious as he or she might be, to spend way beyond the means, regardless of whether finally elected.

Under current Massachusetts law there is no requirement for candidates to square their accounts before starting to raise funds for the next ballot try. All that is required is that the candidate's reports, filed by his or her committee with the State Office of Campaign and Political Finance, show what is owed.

Although open to the public, few citizens take the time, or have sufficient interest, to dig into these files. Since such liabilities are fairly common, ballot opponents, including those whose campaign ledgers are in the black, seldom attempt to make hay by spotlighting the unsatisfied debts of others.

At the same time the victims of bad political debts are reluctant to go after a candidate who has found it convenient to walk away from past creditors. Rarely are candidates, even when engaged in fund-raising efforts for a new electoral try, sued for what they owe.

All too frequently what happens is that unpaid campaign debts eventually get written off or the creditor is forced to accept a portion of what is owed as payment in full.

Radio and television stations have long since avoided becoming the victims of campaign debts by requiring advance payment for broadcast time and any related special services. It might be well for those who do business with officeholders or candidates to insist on getting paid in advance.

Hand in hand with any arrangement to safeguard against future bad campaign debts might be a ceiling on how much anyone can spend in running for office. Faced with funding restrictions, candidates could be expected to be more careful in committing dollars they may not have.

If nothing else, this might encourage potential candidates to be more conscientious and avoid financial obligations beyond what they can repay.

Clearly those running for office - any office - are, or at least should be, responsible for overseeing what is spent in their behalf.

Asking vendors and others supplying campaign services and materials to wait for their money, sometimes for years, or to settle for a few pennies on each dollar owed is at best unconscionable.

George Merry is a longtime observer of the Massachusetts political scene.

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